As the LGBTQ+ community absorbs the news that George Michael has died, Lee Williscroft-Ferris considers his vital legacy.
2016 has been an absolute horror of a year in terms of losing public figures we admire, from David Bowie and Alan Rickman to Prince and Pete Burns. It truly has been an ‘annus horribilis’. As most of us were rounding off our Christmas Day, the news broke that the year had claimed yet another victim, this time in the form of iconic singer-songwriter, George Michael. The 53-year-old had, it was reported, died peacefully at his Oxfordshire home.
There are many reasons to mourn George Michael’s premature passing. He was a man with a singular talent. Having racked up numerous hits as one half of Wham! in the 1980s, he went on to forge an immensely successful solo career. Being a heart-throb in the 80s came hand-in-hand with pretence and secrecy; the devastatingly handsome artist was kept firmly locked in the closet and, by his own admission, was something of a ‘ladies’ man’ during his time in the band. Identifying as bisexual for several years, by the time he confirmed his homosexuality following a severe bout of depression, he had loved and lost Anselmo Feleppa, his Brazilian partner, to an AIDS-related illness. The legacy of that heartbreak was ‘Jesus To A Child’, his 1996 single, which represented Michael’s liberation from 18 months of grief-laden writer’s block.
‘Jesus To A Child’ was more revolutionary than its smooth bossa nova undertones might have suggested. Here we had a global pop megastar performing a melancholy musical tribute to his same-sex partner – and reaching the top of the charts. The fact that Michael’s sexuality remained unconfirmed until 1998 is, to a large extent, irrelevant. To those with an analytical ear, the meaning behind the song’s masterful lyrics rang out loud and clear.
George Michael should, however, be remembered in equal measure for his refusal to conform to societal norms of sexual behaviour. Arrested in a Beverly Hills public toilet in 1998 for ‘engaging in a lewd act’, he claimed to have been a victim of police entrapment. Subsequently forced to confirm what so many already knew, he responded in typically self-deprecating fashion by releasing ‘Outside’, an unashamed anthem to cruising, a brilliant defence of unbridled sexuality and, equally as pertinent, a condemnation of hypocrisy. The accompanying video combined utterly British tongue-in-cheek satire with a crucial social commentary. In depicting a range of scenarios involving illicit sex, Michael was essentially saying to the world, ‘You’ve all done it and if you haven’t, you at least fantasise about it.’ In a society that still slut shames and seeks to impose its narrow doctrine of ‘sexual responsibility’, particularly on LGBTQ+ people, this middle-finger-up to the purveyors of ‘decency’ was genius – and incredibly courageous.
After officially coming out, George Michael was open about his penchant for anonymous, casual sex. He was transparent about the impact of this on his relationship with long-term partner, Kenny Goss, i.e. there was no issue. In our age of ‘marriage equality’ and respectability politics, we should not underestimate the sheer audacity it took for Michael to effectively come out a second time as being one half of a non-monogamous gay partnership. He never shied away from overt sexuality; he was excruciatingly sexual/sexy and he knew it.
But this amazingly talented singer, songwriter and performer was far from just a pretty face with a point to prove about sexual liberation. George Michael was political. An outspoken Labour supporter during Wham!’s heyday, he objected to the crass generalisations of the time, once saying, ‘To call us [Wham!] Thatcherite was so simplistic, basically saying that if you’ve got a deep enough tan and made a bit of money then you’ve got to be a Thatcherite.’ 2002’s ‘Shoot The Dog’ took aim at George W. Bush, the US-UK ‘special relationship’ and the ‘War on Terror’. Five years later, Michael dispatched the £1.45 million piano on which John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ around the US on a ‘peace tour’. The piano was placed on display at places made famous by acts of violence, such as Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the site of US President John. F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The LGBTQ+ community does indeed owe George Michael a debt of gratitude. Alongside the rest of the world, we thank him for his amazing musical legacy, for his ability to make us sing, dance and cry. However, we in the LGBTQ+ community should also be thankful to have had George Michael as one of ‘our own’. A trailblazer, something of a rebel, a social non-conformist who said ‘fuck you’ to the moralisers and bigots, both queer and not, George, we salute you.
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